Actually, technically, Bourdain was first a novelist and a short-story writer. “My lust for print knows no bounds,” he wrote on a submission to the downtown literary journal Between C & D in 1985. In 1995, he published Bone in the Throat, a crime novel set in the restaurant world, and in 1997 a follow-up, Gone Bamboo. Both novels disappeared quickly and quietly.
Bourdain’s writing career truly began to take off with a 1999 essay for the New Yorker. Titled “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the piece forms the basis of what would later become Kitchen Confidential — and in its pages, you can see all the elements of Bourdain’s distinctive, charismatic persona already in place.
The essay is framed as advice to a restaurant-goer from someone who knows: Order fish on Tuesday, when it’s fresh and the chef is well-rested from his day off. Never order your food well done, because that’s where kitchen staffs get rid of the worst of their meat. (“The philistine who orders his food well-done is not likely to notice the difference between food and flotsam,” Bourdain explains.) Chicken is for people who can’t make up their minds, but pork is fantastic. At a good restaurant, there will be a stick of butter in every meal.
The savvy insider knowledge is fun, but what really makes the essay pop is Bourdain’s unmistakable voice. There’s lots of bad-boy posturing — Bourdain throws around Spanish obscenities with relish and boasts of the “powerful strain of criminality” in the restaurant industry — and it’s all mixed in with a sensualist’s genuine appreciation for and love of food.
“Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay,” Bourdain writes. “It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals.”
And that was the food world that Bourdain helped create and make wildly fashionable: one in which eaters could unabashedly celebrate their food, and the insistent physical fact of it.
You can read the entirety of “Don’t Eat Before Reading This” on the New Yorker’s website.